Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005

Housing Works Used Book Café
126 Crosby St

Kieran McGee, standing with guitar, is a 23-year-old artist from the Upper West Side who made his first album at the age of 14. He is one of many acoustic musicians performing monthly at the Housing Works Used Book Cafe.

Monthly folk concert evokes intimacy and another era

By Aileen Torres

A sense of intimacy is what Alan Light, the curator of “Live From Home,” originally had in mind for the monthly acoustic music series at Housing Works.

And that’s what is happening.

The “Live from Home” concert that took place on Dec. 17, at Housing Works Used Book Café on Crosby St. demonstrated how the singer-songwriter remains a strong artistic figure, especially in New York City.

Kieran McGee, Laurie & John Stirratt and Rachael Yamagata were the artists that performed that Friday night. Each of them played songs set to such instrumental simplicity that conferred an uncanny strength to their music, which evokes an intimacy derived from personal lyrics that reveal tales of love, loss and sorrow.

“All musicians have responded well to the vibe of being close to the audience,” said Light, who is also the editor of Tracks, a bimonthly music magazine. Audiences, in turn, have honored such intimacy by settling into moments of collective silence at times during some performances, as Light recounted. “The audiences are so fantastic,” he said. “I am always struck by how rapturous and engaged they get.”

Live From Home is billed as an “old-school coffeehouse live with a New York City edge.” All proceeds from ticket sales go toward financing the programs of Housing Works, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides services such as housing, healthcare and advocacy to homeless people living with HIV and AIDS.

The first show in the series, which runs every third Friday of the month, took place in January 2003. Ryan Adams was the performer that evening. Tickets sold out in 17 minutes, and Adams ended up playing a two-hour show to a full house. Other performers since then have been Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Fountains of Wayne, John Mayer and Bright Eyes.

“The musicians love playing here,” said Light. “They love the space, the intimacy, the feel,” which genuinely evokes a sense of home, owing to the bookstore’s classic library setting, with wood paneling and flooring, curved stairways and high ceilings.

The December concert, the last installment of the series for 2004, was sold out, and there was standing room only. The atmosphere was cozy and informal; like a gathering, as opposed to the typical raucous vibe of a rock show. Instead of a mosh pit, members of the audience sat respectfully in chairs, or on the floor surrounding the stage. People also stood along the two stairways curving up to the balcony, where more people stood to watch the show. They had their eyes toward the small stage, a slightly raised platform covered with a Persian rug and bathed in the honey glow of a soft spotlight.

Kieran McGee, a 23-year-old artist from the Upper West Side who made his first album at the age of 14, was the first performer. His lanky figure was framed loosely by a brown sweater with a stripe across the chest and jeans. A black skull cap with a short brim cast a slight shadow over his face. Bearing a guitar and harmonica, he played songs from his new album, “Anonymous,” flanked by a rhythm guitarist, backup singer and piano player. Echoes of Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie and Neil Young could be heard as he performed tracks about the complications of desire and love and the fragility of relationships. “I really enjoyed the energy he had,” said Tom Southwick, 59, of New Jersey.

Performing next were Laurie and John Stirratt, a country-folk duo and twins who happen to get along incredibly well each other, as was evident on stage that night. They both started playing guitar at the age of 15 and were in a band called the Hilltops in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s. Afterwards, they went their separate ways, with Laurie going on to be a part of Blue Mountain and John going on to be the bassist for Uncle Tupelo and, later on, Wilco.

During Friday night’s show, they played songs from their newly released album, “Arabella,” which marks the first time they’ve recorded together in 14 years.

Officially reuniting with his sister musically was “really natural,” said John. We come from the same direction musically, and we have a mutual respect for each other.”

“It’s great playing with John,” said Laurie. “We get along great. It’s really symbiotic.”

As for performing at Housing Works, “It’s really nice to play in this space,” said Laurie. “It’s a great acoustic venue. A nice change from playing in loud bars and clubs.”

Rachael Yamagata shifted the mood of the evening towards a greater emotional intensity with a performance that was full of her characteristic humor and ranting about past failed relationships. She harbors no restrictions about baring her fragile emotions in her music and on stage, and her acerbic jokes, aimed at herself and certain various ex-boyfriends—including the most recent one, who got it in his head to go back to Brazil and reunite with his ex-girlfriend—make her a very charismatic performer. “They won’t mistake me for Norah Jones, that’s for sure,” she quipped at one point during her set.

Yamagata played songs from her new album, “Happenstance,” strumming hard on her guitar and banging on her keyboard while contorting her face with expressions of anguish, anger, frustration, and sadness. “She’s not afraid to put it all out there,” said Jessica Vita, 24, of Brooklyn. “She really works that piano.” A vulnerable girl, indeed, with enough courage to look at herself and be able to make light of her own seriousness.

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